May 3, 2006

UK’s Reid says plane safeguard may have saved lives

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - British Defence Secretary John Reid
admitted on Wednesday that the lives of 10 Royal Air Force
crewmen killed in Iraq could have been saved if their Hercules
aircraft had been equipped with fuel tank fire protection.

Reid told BBC radio the "tragedy might have been averted"
if a fuel tank inerting system, used as standard by the
Americans, had been fitted.

"With hindsight ... of course it is possible to say that
this tragedy might have been averted if we had done that," he

But he insisted the decision not to fit the fuel safety
system had been right at the time.

Ten RAF aircrew died in Iraq in January 2005 when their
Hercules transport plane lost its wing and crashed after small
arms ground fire had set a fuel tank ablaze.

An official inquiry concluded that the lack of a fuel tank
inerting system in the wings left the plane vulnerable to
explosions and may have contributed to the crash.

Reid said that prior to the 2005 deaths, Britain had
focused its efforts on protecting Hercules planes from surface
to air missiles, rather than small arms ground fire.

"The Australians and the Americans ... were more interested
... in the dangers from small arms fire. In our case there had
never been an RAF Hercules brought down by ground to air fire
... so the decision taken at the time I think was a reasonable
one," he said.

Reid said that since the inquiry report, he had ordered
explosive suppressant foam to be fitted on "those Hercules
aircraft at greatest operational risk."

But defense officials admitted on Wednesday that British
RAF crews are still flying Hercules planes in Iraq and
Afghanistan without the fuel protection system.

A Ministry of Defense spokesman confirmed that no Hercules
had yet been equipped with Explosion Suppressant Foam (ESF) but
said the first plane to be fitted would be ready for
operational use "in the next month or so."

"It takes time to procure the system," he said.

Conservative defense spokesman Liam Fox has said the cost
of installing the foam was only 50,000 pounds per aircraft, on
top of a one-off 275,000 pound payment for setting up the
installation project.

Last month, four Hercules C-130 aircraft left Britain for
Afghanistan to support the NATO-led mission there.

Former RAF Hercules pilot Nigel Gilbert told BBC radio on
Tuesday that none of these aircraft was carrying fire
suppressant foam and all were at risk of being attacked.

"Every man and his dog out there has an AK-47. And an AK-47
can bring a Hercules down," he said.